Cataloging a year of blogging: the philosophical turn
January 12, 2015 3 Comments
Passion and motivation are strange and confusing facets of being. Many things about them feel paradoxical. For example, I really enjoy writing, categorizing, and — obviously, if you’ve read many of the introductory paragraphs on TheEGG — blabbing on far too long about myself. So you’d expect that I would have been extremely motivated to write up this index of posts from the last year. Yet I procrastinated — although in a mildly structured way — on it for most of last week, and beat myself up all weekend trying to force words into this textbox. A rather unpleasant experience, although it did let me catch up on some Batman cartoons from my childhood. Since you’re reading this now, I’ve succeeded and received my hit of satisfaction, but the high variance in my motivation to write baffles me.
More fundamentally, there is the paradox of agency. It feels like my motivations and passions are aspects of my character, deeply personal and defining. Yet, it is naive to assume that they are determined by my ego; if I take a step back, I can see how my friends, colleagues, and even complete strangers push and pull the passions and motivations that push and pull me. For example, I feel like TheEGG largely reflects my deep-seated personal interests, but my thoughts do not come from me alone, they are shaped by my social milieu — or more dangerously by Pavlov’s buzzer of my stats page, each view and comment and +1 conditioning my tastes. Is the heavy presence of philosophical content because I am interested in philosophy, or am I interested in philosophy because that is what people want to read? That is the tension that bothers me, but it is clear that my more philosophical posts are much more popular than the practical. If we measure in terms of views then in 2014 new cancer-related posts accounted for only 4.7% of the traffic (with 15 posts), the more abstract cstheory perspective on evolution accounted for 6.6% (with 5 posts), while the posts I discuss below accounted for 57.4% (the missing chunk of unity went to 2014 views of post from 2012 and 2013). Maybe this is part of the reason why there was 24 philosophical posts, compared to the 20 practical posts I highlighted in the first part of this catalog.
Of course, this example is a little artificial, since although readership statistics are fun distraction, they are not particularly relevant just easy to quantify. Seeing the influence of the ideas I read is much more difficult. Although I think these exercises in categorization can help uncover them. In this post, I review the more philosophical posts from last year, breaking them down less autobiographically and more thematically: interfaces and useful delusions; philosophy of the Church-Turing thesis; Limits of science and dangers of mathematics; and personal reflections on philosophy and science. Let me know if you can find some coherent set of influences.
Interfaces and useful delusions
Apart from the three workshops I discussed in the practical catalog, I also presented at the 36th annual meeting of the Cognitive Science Society in Quebec City. A relatively practical venue, but I tried to sneak in a little bit of philosophy while presenting my joint work with Marcel Montrey and Thomas Shultz (Kaznatcheev et al., 2014). TheEGG saw a similar blending of evolutionary simulations with purely philosophical considerations over the past year.
- Kooky history of the quantum mind: reviving realism (January 19th, 2014)
- Interface theory of perception can overcome the rationality fetish (January 28th, 2014)
- Two heads are better than one. How about more? by Piotr Migdal (January 30th, 2014)
- Useful delusions, interface theory of perception, and religion (May 4th, 2014)
- Defining empathy, sympathy, and compassion (September 13th, 2014)
- Should we be astonished by the Principle of “Least” Action? by Abel Molina (September 28th, 2014)
- From realism to interfaces and rationality in evolutionary games (November 1st, 2014)
- Realism and interfaces in philosophy of mind and metaphysics (November 30th, 2014)
For around 3 years I worked in quantum computing — in fact, I think I am still one of the more active members on the cstheory quantum-computing tag — and although I don’t think too much about it now-a-days, it is still knowledge that sits in the back of my mind. As such, I have a particular aversion to people trying to “explain” the mind or brain with “quantum in the gaps” arguments; especially when they misrepresent quantum mechanics in the process. This article touched on some of these issues. More relevant to this theme, though, I discuss the Copenhagen interpretation as a philosophy of the tension between our prescientific categories (or interface, in the terminology of later posts) and the reality of the apparatuses of experimental physics.
A comment by Zach M. on the kooky history article introduced me to the work of Donald Hoffman. Although I was initially skeptical, looking to Hoffman’s academic work lead me to his evolutionary arguments for the interface theory of perception (Mark et al., 2010). These results opened my eyes to see my joint work with Marcel and Tom as an extension of Hoffman’s individualistic interface theory into a social interface theory.
To better understand the social aspects of representations, it is important to understand how crowd decisions can differ (and be better than) those of any given individual. Of course, the results will depend on how group decisions are aggregated, but Migdal et al. (2014) were still able to derive some general results for wisdom of crowds.
My colleagues have a strong interest in the cognitive science of religion, and hence it is tempting to apply our social interface theory to religion. In particular, religion seems to combine the promotion of cooperation with certain misperceptions of or delusions about objective states of the world. Although we are not the first to consider evolutionary explanations for religion, our hope is to extend them to earlier belief systems that do not necessarily involve ‘Big Gods’ (Norenzayan, 2013).
‘Delusion’ is an unfortunate choice of terminology, since it conjures a negative imagery. Given that in our work we are mostly seeing pro-social delusions that can be interpreted as very positive emotions like empathy, sympathy, and compassion. Of course, before we can model these emotions further, it is imperative to understand what exactly we mean when we use these words.
An important philosophical consequence of the interface perspective, is that we can learn interesting things by examining how the interfaces are structured in addition to examining what they are interfacing us with. This means that some parts that may seem like empirical particulars of nature, might actually be a consequence of our interface or how we choose to describe nature. A subtle scientific equivalent of ‘unmarried bachelors’.
Returning to the big picture in the above two articles, I explore first the evolutionary and then the philosophical discussion of interface theories. In the process, I briefly mentioned Epicurus, Plato, Russell, Averroes, and the Sufi mystics, before returning to Kant and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics that he inspired.
These 8 posts had a corpus of around 13.0 thousand words and garnered around 32.5 thousand views.
Philosophy of the Church-Turing thesis
A sign of good philosophy is that it offers you many perspectives from which to look at a some thesis. A sign of a good thesis is that is it interesting from many different perspectives. A particularly good thesis, especially for theoretical computer scientists, is attributed to Church and Turing. It states — in its vaguest form — that anything that is computable is computable by a Turing machine. Over the last year, I’ve looked at the CT-thesis through three sets of eyes, those of a platonist, physicalist, and cognitivist.
- Kleene’s variant of the Church-Turing thesis (April 6th, 2014)
- Falsifiability and Gandy’s variant of the Church-Turing thesis (September 1st, 2014)
- Transcendental idealism and Post’s variant of the Church-Turing thesis (September 11th, 2014)
In the process, I also hoped to make certain philosophical positions clearer. In the first post, I discussed how mathematical platonists can have beliefs that are not conjectures. In the second, I showed that we can have a very precise empirical statements that isn’t falsifiable but still incredibly useful for science. In the third, I tried to explain some of the motivation behind Kant’s thought and why I still find it relevant.
These 3 posts had a corpus of around 5.9 thousand words and garnered around 9.7 thousand views.
Limits of science and dangers of mathematics
In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett makes the sharp observation that “[t]here is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination”. Since I am thoroughly committed to science and mathematics, I find it important to try to uncover so of the philosophical baggage that I am taking on board. In using and participating in science and mathematics, I take an (implicitly) positive stance toward it, to balance this, I’ve tried to look at the limits, shortcomings, and dangers of my discipline.
- Misunderstanding falsifiability as a power philosophy of Scientism (April 1st, 2014)
- Big data, prediction, and scientism in the social sciences (April 13th, 2014)
- Cross-validation in finance, psychology, and political science (April 20th, 2014)
- Models, modesty, and moral methodology (April 27th, 2014)
- Weapons of math destruction and the ethics of Big Data (September 5th, 2014)
- Philosophy of Science and an analytic index for Feyerabend (September 26th, 2014)
- Limits of prediction: stochasticity, chaos, and computation (September 30th, 2014)
- Personification and pseudoscience (October 19th, 2014)
A common way that I see people shut down discourse is by proclaiming some statement to be not falsifiable and — simply because of that — not worth talking about. I think this is a misuse of Popper’s demarcation criteria, and inimical to his ideal of an open society.
Methodological intimidation is the use of difficult to understand and potentially irrelevant tools from one science — typically physics or mathematics — to belittle or silence the practitioners of another field. This is a dangerous face of scientism, especially when somebody trying to “solve the problems that mankind faces today” by “improve[ing] the systems that govern our lives”.
Cross-validation is a basic technique in machine learning, the kind that if you forget to use in your assignments after the first couple of weeks, you can expect a very poor grade. However, there are plenty of cases where cross-validation isn’t used, but more importantly I discuss some cases in science and society where cross-validation needn’t and even shouldn’t be used.
When making predictions, especially ones affecting society, it is especially important to be careful of with your underlying assumptions and presentation. However, even when one is careful, you cannot expect everybody who is affected by the prediction to understand all the caveats that might have gone into the modeling. If you — or somebody else — proceed to give advice based on this model, it is important to not hide behind the ‘objectivity’ of science and math, and watch the moral subject of your statements. Instead of saying “this model predicts…” or “according to science…”, you have to take responsibility for the prediction and remind people of its conditional or subjective nature by saying “I predict…”.
This past year, I introduced a new type of post. An analytic index — to borrow from Feyerabend — or just a set of annotated links — to be less pretentious. My first one highlighted some of my favorite posts by Cathy O’Neil on the dangers of (mis)applying mathematics, big data in particular, to the social sphere. The second one was a homage to Feyerabend, a collection of links discussing his questioning of the consistency and justification of science.
Prediction is considered to be a central, or sometimes even a defining, part of science. There is a prevalent belief that if only we improve our models than we will improve our predictions. However, in some cases there are fundamental mathematical barriers to better (or any) prediction. But barriers are not always negative, sometimes they can be used as a basis for things that we want, like free will.
If you prefer to consume your media as audio instead of text then you might enjoy episode 38 of the Review the Future podcast that this article inspired.
But just because I am critical of science and mathematics and its self-asserted epistemological supremacy, doesn’t mean that I think that everything is the same and there’s still no such thing as pseduoscience. In this article, I elaborate on an old answer looking at the role of personification of theoretical concepts in pseudoscientific theories. However, I do not suggest this as a demarcation criteria, since I still remain agnostic on if science and pseudoscience can be cleanly separated — although I think I am leaning toward no.
These 8 posts had a corpus of around 13.2 thousand words and garnered around 17.4 thousand views.
Personal reflections on philosophy and science
If the above reflections on science and math were not a sufficient amount of navel-gazing then these lasts few posts are for you. Throughout the year, I paused several times to try to reflect on questions like: what is philosophy? how can it be useful to science? and, why am I drawn to such perspectives?
- Change, progress, and philosophy in science (February 21st, 2014)
- Why academics should blog and an update on readership (March 18th, 2014)
- A Theorist’s Apology (August 29th, 2014)
- Models and metaphors we live by (October 5th, 2014)
- Critical thinking and philosophy (October 26th, 2014)
Bertrand Russell is one of my favorite philosophers to read, not because I agree with his philosophy — although I used to agree with the spirit of it — but because he states it with a wit and clarity that I often find lacking in other writers. I also find him to have been a good gadfly during his life, and a catalyst for important thought in both philosophy and science. For me, these are some of the things that a theorist should aim for.
One of Russell’s roles was as a public intellectual, a term that now often gets mixed up with public educator. I tried to figure out how one can use blogs and other online tools to facilitate a space for this sort of public discourse. Does TheEGG provide such a space? I hope that it does, and this year I plan to move further in this direction by welcoming even more guest bloggers to the roster.
My crises of identity are not limited to TheEGG, but are personal as well. After my nearly 4 months mid-year blogging silence, I returned to writing by explicating what is that drives my scientific and philosophical interests. The result was this definition of a theorist — not a of some domain, but of a general curiosity about the structure of theories, their implications and limitations across domains.
If I had to identify the structure of philosophical theories, my only starting point would be all of language. This is due toits central role in philosophy, especially in the 20th century. As such, Lakoff & Johnson’s (1980) radically different view of the structure of language is very important and has proven to be hugely influential in parts of linguistics and cognitive science. Unfortunately, there seems to have been less penetration into philosophy itself and the popular psyche. However, Metaphors we live by still has the wide ranging insights and transformative questioning of the accepted wisdom that any theorists should aspire to.
I think Metaphors we live by is the best book I read in 2014, and I would strongly recommend it to everybody.
Trying to find an acceptable definition of philosophy is very difficult. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given how self-conscious philosophy is and how trained (and willing) its practitioners are at scrutinize any proposal one might make. However, this has not stopped a large number of people — especially non-philosophers — in equating philosophy to critical thinking. I offer some links to critique this position.
These 8 posts had a corpus of around 8.3 thousand words and garnered around 27.3 thousand views.
Dennett, D.C. (1995). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Simon & Schuster.
Kaznatcheev, A., Montrey, M., & Shultz, T.R. (2014). Evolving useful delusions: Subjectively rational selfishness leads to objectively irrational cooperation. Proceedings of the 36th annual conference of the Cognitive Science Society arXiv: 1405.0041v1
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago press.
Mark, J.T., Marion, B.B., & Hoffman, D.D. (2010). Natural selection and veridical perceptions. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 266(4): 504-515
Migdal, P., Rączaszek-Leonardi, J., Denkiewicz, M., & Plewczynski, D. (2012). Information-Sharing and Aggregation Models for Interacting Minds. Journal of Mathematical Psychology, 56(6): 417-426
Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods: How religion transformed cooperation and conflict. Princeton University Press.